A Tale of Two Stratfords

Any place undergoing change as fundamental as Stratford in East London is bound to have a number of identities. How they coexist can be core to an area’s socioeconomic resilience, and the two anchor shopping centres here are showing it can be done – provided there’s enough footfall and an understanding of what local as well as visiting customers want.

When Westfield Stratford City launched in 2011, bringing the American-mall-style glamour of Westfield from Shepherd’s Bush, locals and commentators feared it might be the death knell for the highly functional but careworn Stratford Shopping Centre across the way.

Instead, the two are returning from lockdown more or less in parallel, as Stratford Town Centre, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the International Quarter evolve around them.

The two retail anchors are at the confluence of local heritage, a vital transport hub, a council ambitious for residents and for growth, plus planning quirks and sticky problems. That seemed to make them ideal as a field trip destination for the Leaders Plus 9 cohort, with candidates from developers, councils, charities, consultancies and housing associations – our most mixed yet.

The goal was to give participants food for thought as they work on similar projects or issues across the city; the setting and the speakers (and the lunch!) didn’t disappoint.

The field trip followed a linked seminar on “Leading through Crisis & Change” with LLDC Chief Executive Lyn Garner; the Social Housing Regulator’s Director of Consumer Regulation Kate Dodsworth; and LB Lambeth Director of Economy, Culture & Skills Nabeel Khan (Chatham House summary exclusive to Leaders Plus candidates and mentors).

Chris Paddock, Place & Economy Partner at PRD, kicked off the afternoon with an overview of proposed town centre vision and strategy developed for and with LB Newham. Consultation on much of the work is ongoing, but a core tenet is recognising the varied offers and needs of the dense neighbourhoods here. Tied to that, the council – as part of its community wealth building drive – wants to make sure the economic benefits of the Central and Innovation Quarters reach people living in the older residential areas to the south and east, where income and opportunity are lower.

The two shopping centres, facing each other across a transport plaza, are symbols of these linked realities.

Heading down to Westfield’s packed food court

As Centre Operations Manager Laura Walters told the group as we toured, Westfield Stratford City – at 177,000 sqm, the largest shopping centre by area in the UK – hosted 54m visitors a year pre-Covid. It is a total destination, with retail, services and fast food bolstered by cinemas, gaming and an enormous food court housed in lofty galleries, plus privately-owned streets (one called ‘The Street’) full of restaurants, commercial, hotel and flexible space. The centre flows into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and adjacent office developments, has covered one of its streets for additional all-weather public space, and will soon open an onsite apartment tower. Westfield is nothing if not ambitious.

Slow food in Stratford Centre

By contrast, Stratford Shopping Centre (opened in 1974) hosted 26m visitors a year before Covid, packed into a bustling 30,000 sqm of retail, services, food and beverage, the popular Roof East bar – and a street market. One planning quirk about this area is that while Westfield Stratford has privately owned outside streets, Stratford Centre’s main [indoor] thoroughfare is a public road, owned by the borough and hosting a thriving street market whose traders pay rent to the council, not the Centre owners.

The public right-of-way is a key route between the high street and Stratford transport links, but having to leave it open 24hrs a day has meant real problems, said Centre Manager Tony Peters, who “was running around here in short pants before there was ever a shopping centre” and knows the centre from the ground up.

Tony Peters & Gianluca Rizzo

In addition to vulnerable people sheltering out of desperation, Peters said much rougher groups of 70-100 people a night started showing up, partying, destroying property, leaving filth, and preying on the more vulnerable inside and around the centre. The Everyone In campaign to house rough sleepers helped people truly in need, but they weren’t the problem.

Peters is a trustee of the Stratford Original Business Improvement District and worked with the BID and the council to secure a temporary overnight closure. The exemption must be renewed every three months, but has made a difference in real and perceived safety, which should help restore the area’s nighttime economy post-Covid.

BID Manager Gianluca Rizzo said a lot of the work in improving perception and helping local businesses recover has been through training and lobbying – and by using community creativity over just CCTV, pointing to the large, colourful (and lighted) murals above shops on Broadway.

Peters said safety and security are the core of the cooperation between the two centres, as they share information on theft or threats. Customers flow back and forth as much as intel, as people from the area and farther away visit one and then the other for shopping, specialty or fast foods, a place to hang out or to get something repaired. The shops in Stratford Centre may not be as high-end, but the place has had near 100% rental occupancy even through Covid; Westfield Stratford City is on its way back as well.

Wayfinding, colour & cheery lights on Broadway

As Paddock put it, the missed opportunity, particularly for local people, is that the property Stratford Centre is part of could be more economically productive. LB Newham has the freehold, but Frogmore has the leasehold on the centre, adjacent carparks and yards and the Morgan House office building, which sits empty as a ‘business continuity’ backup space. With a retail anchor that turns a profit with standard maintenance and an office building that makes money while empty, there’s no incentive to invest in any significant way.

Evidence for investment – or any change – is getting easier to come by. PRD’s Amanda Robinson (an FoL and FLL alumna herself) shared excellent footfall and spending data from the GLA’s High Streets Data Service and made available to local authorities. See our 2021 post here.

Aggregated retail spending (Mastercard Retail Location Insights, GLA Datastore). Collated & analysed by PRD’s Amanda Robinson

The information painted a vivid picture of ebb and flow between the centres and the high street during and around lockdown – and had candidates from the course clamouring to get hold of the data. If you work with a council and want to find out more, drop us a line and we’ll connect you with her.

Thanks to Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield for hosting us in their meeting space, and to all speakers for their time and insight! Keep an eye on Stratford town centre work via the Newham Council website – or watch this space.

For information on Leaders Plus, see here and/or contact hazel@futureoflondon.org.uk. Nominations start in summer for Oct/Nov course launch.